Child Support Automation Behind Schedule

Fifteen years after Congress voted to fund 90 percent of state costs to automate child support enforcement, only a few states are near completion.

by / November 30, 1995
Fifteen years after Congress voted to
fund 90 percent of state costs to automate child support enforcement, only a few states are near completion.


By Linda Dailey Paulson
Special to Government Technology

A major reason single parents often end up relying on welfare, many experts agree, is the failure of an absent parent to pay court-ordered child support. And while many state and local governments recognize that enforcing child support payments help single parent families avoid poverty and public assistance, surprisingly few integrated information technology systems have been implemented to track deadbeat parents.

One reason it is surprising is that Congress voted in 1980 to fund 90 percent of state costs to automate child support-related tasks. Seven years later, Congress created specific measures for funding child support automation systems and set an Oct. 1, 1995 deadline for implementation. The Department of Health and Human Services and the Government Accounting Office are charged with monitoring the progress in the states.

Congress may enact legislation to extend the deadline by which states must have an approved child support system by another two years. More funding may be necessary so states can meet changing requirements due to welfare reform. But such funding may not be made available as Congress sends much of the responsibility for welfare programs to the states.

To date, only Montana has an approved child support system, and its approval is conditional. "As of this point, no one has met [the federal criteria] fully, although there are reviews going on ... that are likely to produce less than 12 declarations," said Mike Henry, director of Virginia's Division of Child Support Enforcement. "The question is, why has this been so hard? Why, with a seven-year development period, has everyone failed?" The answer, he said, is that "it is difficult to automate a manual system that is dysfunctional."

And ready applications still are not widely available on the market. "The idea of the country bringing up automated systems in child support over strapped the ability of the private sector to respond," said Henry.

A major reason that child support automation has fallen behind is that there are few experts in the states who understand how federal money is allocated. "It's a very complicated process," said Henry. "There are about a half dozen people per state who understand. Even some states have not gotten it right."

State employees attempting to design adequate systems have been at the mercy of the bidding process and have had to rely on vendor expertise. And, although states may have a system that complies with federal guidelines, these systems are not necessarily able to provide an interface between states and federal government. "Nor was there a requirement" to do so, said Vicki Turetsky, senior staff attorney with the Center for Law and Social Policy. "So we have a lot of stand-alone systems. There hasn't been a clear national plan where all state systems will be able to interface with each other. It went from an optional program to a mandatory program, but there was not a shift to a national planning effort."

And interstate communication is vital to enforcing child support. Sid Johnson, executive director of the American Public Welfare Association, estimates that about 30 percent of all child support orders involve an out-of-state, non-custodial parent. "This is a terribly complicated process with non-custodial parents moving all the time and with a variety of government agencies involved," he said. "It is just an enormous challenge to get all the pieces and keep them together. It's constantly moving."

Another challenge in many states is getting all the intrastate jurisdictions to work on the system. The agencies which handle child support enforcement vary from state to state. In some states, it may be the bailiwick of the state attorney general; in others, the department of human services with local courts. In Virginia, a single agency has the task. "I think one of the reasons we're going to make the deadline, and a lot of the states aren't, is that it is easier to make a programwide decision in a state like Virginia," said Henry.

Henry's success at bringing his state close to compliance contains some lessons from which other states can benefit. One piece of advice is that systems shouldn't be built from the ground up, yet not be so bound to a legacy system that it becomes what he called a fresh coat of paint on a dinosaur.

"Implement your new system in layers. Don't bring the whole thing on at once," he said. "There are some core elements -- get those up as quickly as you can, then add on the bells and the whistles. That approach would shorten the development cycle."

Initially, Virginia's system was not compliant with federal regulations because aspects of federal child support law were changed by Congress. This makes flexibility a must. With the assistance of the vendor, Virginia's mainframe-based system was retrofit to meet the ever-changing federal criteria.

Henry said it is important to evaluate operations periodically, particularly when technology plays a vital part. In Virginia, the changes were stressful for employees at all levels because they had to quickly learn how to manage cases with the automated system. Some operations were decentralized, some staff positions either radically changed or added, and some clerical positions within the agency were eliminated.

After about four months, the system was functioning smoothly and staff adjustments were made to match the computer workflow. "Then, productivity just went through the roof," said Henry, reporting between 40 percent and 120 percent higher activity in some areas over the same period last year."